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Vaccines in pregnancy: why you shouldn’t skip yours

Pregnancy can be a time of joy, but also a time of worry. Am I eating the right foods? Am I gaining the correct amount of weight? Am I allowed to dye my hair?

These questions and more are really just the first way a woman becomes a mom: by constantly trying to do what is best for her baby, even before he is born.

I think this is a big reason, then, why so many pregnant women are afraid to get vaccines when they are pregnant, even when their doctor or midwife not only reassures them they are safe, but counsels that skipping certain ones can actually lead to complications. It’s out of the desire to not harm that unborn baby, but this gesture can have unfortunate consequences.

Take the flu vaccine, for example. We know that getting the flu is no fun, but in pregnancy it can actually lead to severe complications like the need for hospitalization, needing a breathing tube, and even delivering preterm or stillbirth.

Despite these issues, only about 50 percent of pregnant women actually receive the flu vaccine in pregnancy, even though we know it is safe! We think the reason for this is two-fold: moms declining the vaccine, as well as some doctors and midwives not recommending it to their patients (even though they all should!).

And what’s more is that a new study out of Australia has actually shown that receiving the flu vaccine in pregnancy may actually decrease the risk of stillbirth, a devastating pregnancy outcome. We aren’t totally sure why this is the case — and we’re not even certain of the true link between the shot and the decreased risk — but it is interesting to note and is reassuring at the very least.

It’s true that some vaccines, like the chickenpox and rubella vaccines, should absolutely be avoided in pregnancy because we know they aren’t safe to an unborn baby. Also, the nasal spray version of the flu vaccine should not be given to a pregnant woman, yet the injection form is completely safe.

It’s possible that some pregnant women avoid these safe vaccines for a few reasons: they haven’t been told by their doctors that some vaccines are completely safe and recommended, they may not believe the multiple studies that deem them safe, or they think that since some vaccines should be avoided it means all are unsafe while pregnant.

Additionally, the misinformation about vaccines and the risk of autism can make the discussion about vaccines a difficult one to keep in perspective.

Whatever the reason, we know that every woman has the right to make her own decisions about her body. We as doctors can only do our best to educate, counsel, and reassure. Luckily, when more studies come out that help support the safety of certain vaccines like this study about the decreased chance of stillbirth, we can be hopeful that this will make the decision easier for more women.

If you have concerns about vaccines in pregnancy, please be sure to ask your doctor or midwife to spend more time explaining their recommendations to you. It may mean the difference between a healthy pregnancy and one with complications. And if you want more information to help make your choice, visit the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists Immunization for Women webpage.

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About Dr. Jennifer Lincoln, Bundoo OB/GYN

Dr. Jennifer Lincoln is a board-certified generalist obstetrician/gynecologist and attending physician in Portland, Oregon. She primarily works on labor and delivery has recently been certified as an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant.

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